Spotlight on Bastimentos Alive and what it's like to start a tour business in Panama

Spotlight on Bastimentos Alive and what it's like to start your own tour company

Posted by Nicole Kow on Jun 30, 2016

It's 12pm in Panama and it's starting to rain. I'm greeted from across the world by a cheerful young man who begins to tell me about his 10-month old start up on an island called Bastimentos Alive.

Tom Pelgrum runs incredible day tours on an island called Isla Bastimentos, and throws a mean barbecue after (according to his reviews on TripAdvisor). His tours bring customers through lush jungles and swamps, to meadows, farms and secluded beaches. His goal for each tour is simple, to make people feel alive. 

This unexpected journey began back at university, where he studied International Business Management at the Arnhem Business School in the Netherlands. As part of his degree, he had to complete a 6 month internship and decided work with an adventure company in Vietnam that offered rock climbing ang kayaking activities. He helped the company with marketing, administration and also led excursions during his time there. 


It was the first time I realised that I really enjoyed work. I wanted people to have a good day and I really enjoyed making them smile at the end of the day.


When he returned to university, his thesis became a chore and he was constantly thinking about his experience back in Vietnam. Even after graduating and securing a job in the corporate sector, Tom couldn't shake off the feeling he had in Vietnam, the joy that came along with simply making people smile. It didn't take long for him to hang up his suit and tie, and begin searching for something to make him feel alive



Why Panama?

He was convicted that a tour business was something he wanted to start. "But why an island in Panama?" I asked.

"Well, Panama has a good economy and tourism is up and coming here. It is an established destination for North Americans and a growing destination for Europeans and Australians. So from a macro point of view, the numbers made sense."

As for being a Dutch man in Panama, he tells me that Panama welcomes foreign investors with open arms. "What most expats do here, including myself, is after 6 months you have to cross the border for 3 days and then you're allowed back into the country. I also have an official business license, which cost me very little money."

At that time, I didn't have the money to travel and see the world to decide on what I really loved and where I wanted to be. It was a big risk.

"I did a lot of prior research and found that Bastimentos was part of a larger province that was very popular among tourists due to its beautiful beaches and great national parks. It has a much more Caribbean feel to it compared to Bocas town which is nearby."



Starting from scratch

When Tom finally got to the island, he began networking and hustling as best as he could. He made some great friends at one of the local hostels and got familiar with some of the trails around Bastimentos. He started taking people on trial runs, including locals who taught him about the land, the beaches, the local fruits and animals, and the local way of life. 


I want to create a unique experience for tourists of all incomes. Tours don’t always have a good reputation, especially among backpackers. They prefer to skip the tour and explore themselves. To me, tours should take you to places where you can’t go alone. 


Tom worked with locals to develop the local knowledge and embed them into his tours. As he became more confident with his product, he began charging people for it. I asked him about finding the right price and found that it was part of a larger marketing strategy.

"I began charging people what other boat tour operators were charging, $35 per customer, and offered something extra. I threw in a barbecue at the end of each tour to build my reputation. And soon enough, people started talking about Bastimentos Alive."


"But $35 per customer meant that I wasn't making money. I decided to charge $10 for the barbecue and made it optional for customers. During the low season, like now, the numbers are simply not working. I'm still experimenting on different cost structures and ideas to find that sweet spot. My business background has definitely helped."


Cutting through the noise and reaching his customers online

We spoke a lot more about his marketing strategy and how being online has made him stand out from the crowd. "Using TrekkSoft as a booking system gives me a head start over other competitors here. People can book in advance and I can market my tours better with my limited skills. I have no design background but with a little common sense and a lot of free online tools, it’s so easy to get things done." 

"I used to use a free booking software that was in its starting phase. It looked nice but lacked a lot of features and I wanted something more professional yet easy to use. TrekkSoft's approach was very personal and I had a fun conversation with someone on the team. It was such a long conversation because my internet was slow, but he was patient. I love it when a company is nice and personal. It made TrekkSoft an easy option for me."
"TrekkSoft is easy to use once you've set up everything. I’ve done that and I don’t have to do anything anymore, I just get an email notifying me about a booking. I love the phone app, I can make a booking when I’m talking to someone and when I get home, everything is sorted."
Building valuable relationships with his customers
Apart from his website, Tom also relies a lot on TripAdvisor to attract new customers. To make full use of the review platform, he asks customers to fill out a Google form at the end of each tour, along with their contact details. He then sends them an email a week later thanking them and reminding them about leaving a review on TripAdvisor
He has also gotten his customers involved in building his business. "The photos and videos you see on my website were all taken by my customers. If I notice someone taking pictures during the tour, I usually ask them if they're going to do anything with it after the tour. When you spend a whole day hiking with someone, you learn a lot about them and most of the time, people are friendly enough to share their videos and pictures with me. Next week, two ladies will be coming over to paint a mural for us."
"My customers are all different. The ones who book online are very well planned and have researched and booked for the entire trip. But backpackers, they stay for 2 to 3 weeks and they are mostly walk-in customers. Although this is the easiest target group for me as we are of similar age, they aren't the easiest to convince because they don't have a lot of money."
Word on the street is that Tom runs great tours
He adds that word of mouth remains his most important marketing tool. He threw barbecues to grow his reputation on the island, and that strategy worked incredibly well. He has worked with hostels, hotels and B&Bs, and found that the best partners to work with are B&Bs. 
"I've tried working with hostels but their staff turnover rate is so high that my efforts to develop a partnership with their staff becomes worthless after a month or so. Now I'm trying to focus on B&Bs because their customers have more money and B&Bs don't provide tours so they need to find someone who can."

"A tour is part of the overall customer experience so if they have a good tour during the day, they simply need a hot shower and a comfy bed at night to enjoy their accommodation."


So, is he happy? 
With a large grin, he looked at me through his web camera and said,

I’ve never been this happy. More people should do what they love and just, excuse my language, say screw it! Sometimes you gotta just say screw it, take a big leap in life and do what you want to do.


What did you think of this article? Let us know in the comments below!


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Nicole Kow

Written by Nicole Kow

Having graduated from the UK, Nicole travelled around Europe before joining TrekkSoft's marketing team. She is now based in KL and regularly blogs about her travels at Next Train Out.

Topics: Spotlight interviews

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